It was “More Pricks Than Kicks” that made me fall in love with Samuel Beckett. The author’s first published work of fiction (he had previously put out a couple of volumes of critical writing), it’s a collection of 10 linked stories about a Dubliner named Belacqua Shuah, and it is rife with references -- to Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce. I read it for the first time in my early 20s, and it unlocked for me what I had previously not appreciated: Beckett’s bleak and pointed sense of humor, his understanding of the absurdity and necessity of life.
“In the depths of the sea,” he notes in the opening story, “Dante and the Lobster,” describing the fate of the titular crustacean, “it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.”
He could be writing about any of us.
Belacqua dies late in “More Pricks Than Kicks”; the closing story deals with his funeral. And yet, in the fall of 1933, as the book was being prepared for publication, Beckett wrote an 11th story, “Echo’s Bones” (Grove: 122 pp., $22), which was rejected by the collection’s editor, Charles Prentice, and subsequently remained unpublished for more than 80 years. It’s now being published, on Wednesday, along with all the expected critical apparatus (nearly 60 pages of annotations for a 49-page story), and it offers a fascinating glimpse at an essential author at the start of his career.
In the early 1930s, after all, Beckett was still very much under the sway of his mentor, James Joyce; it was not until a decade later that he would begin his turn toward the terseness and minimalism for which he is known. “Echo’s Bones” -- like the whole of “More Pricks Than Kicks” -- is an expression of this earlier aesthetic: exuberant, allusive, full of puns and wordplay, although already fundamentally absurd.
The set-up is simple. Belacqua is brought back from the dead, although he remains uncertain about the cosmology (to the question of whether God exists, he responds, “Presumably. ... I know no more than I did”). Indeed, his resurrection fulfills more a narrative than a philosophical function, because “Echo’s Bones” was to be the final story in the book.
For all that, however, the story has a vivid movement, with three distinct parts. In the first, Belacqua has an interaction with a prostitute; in the second, he serves as a surrogate for the impotent Lord Gall; and in the third, he meets a grave robber named Doyle who is bent on desecrating his grave. The story ends with Belacqua’s coffin being opened and found to be full of stones.
“What a scene when you come to think of it!” Beckett writes. “Belacqua petrified link-boy, the scattered guts of ground, the ponderous anxiomaniac on the brink in the nude like a fly on the edge of a sore, (1) in the grey flaws of tramontane the hundreds of headstones sighing and gleaming like bones, the hamper, mattock, shovel, spade and axe cabal of vipers, most malignant, the clothes-basket a coffin in its own way, and of course the prescribed hush of great solemnity broken only by the sea convulsed in one of those dreams, ah one of those dreams, the submarine wallowing and hooting on the beach like an absolute fool, and dawn toddling down the mountains. What a scene!”
In his introduction, Beckett scholar Mark Nixon calls “Echo’s Bones” “a difficult, at times obscure story, uneven in tone and mood, and evasive in stating its business.” All of that is true. But it also has an unexpected unity, for a story that takes place in the afterlife and ends essentially unresolved.
Here too we see Beckett’s debt to Dante, as Belacqua moves through deeper and deeper circles; I’m also reminded of Nathanael West’s first novel, “The Dream Life of Balso Snell,” which was published two years before.
I don’t mean that Beckett read West (almost no one read West’s novel), just that it’s interesting to see two young writers, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, working a similarly dreamlike territory as part of the process of discovering their own voices, and I wonder what that tells us about the aesthetics of the time. Both books represent a search for meaning in a world where meaning appears to have come undone.
This, of course, could be said of Beckett’s whole career, which in some ways is encapsulated by this early work.
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” he wrote in “Waiting for Godot,” and, as Nixon points out, such an observation sits at the center of “Echo’s Bones” also, with its closing admonition, “So it goes in the world.”
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